Winning ugly: Falcioni’s reign at Boca comes to an end

(Article first featured on Lovely Left Foot)

Julio Cesar Falcioni

Despite bringing Boca a first league title in three years, a Copa Argentina and embarking on an ultimately unsuccessful run to the Copa Libertadores final in the last 24 months, Julio Cesar Falcioni remained unable to win over the Xeneize faithful.  It was announced last week that Falcioni’s successful yet fractious tenure will come to an end with fan favourite Carlos Bianchi returning for a third stint at the club.

Falcioni arrived at Boca in late December 2010 at a time when the club found itself slumped in mid-table mediocrity and glancing nervously over its shoulder towards the promedios.  Having guided Banfield to a surprise first title win in the 2009 Apertura, Falcioni was seen as a no nonsense character to restore some stability to the blue and gold and in a decent transitory first season notched up 28 points in the 2010 Clausura.

It was the following season that Falcioni really made his mark.  Boca, with ruthless efficiency, marched to the 2011 Apertura title without losing a single match, conceding just six times in nineteen games and finishing 12 points ahead of Racing in second.  However impressive and historic the feat, spectacular it certainly wasn’t. Built on the foundations of an impenetrable defence – marshalled by returning veteran Rolando Schiavi – a workmanlike Boca ground out results as they steamrollered their way to the title

Much like the age-old adage of dogs resembling their owners, Boca’s style seemed a manifestation of Falcioni’s craggy exterior.  A vulture-like nose, deeply entrenched lines etched onto a stern glare of perpetual dissatisfaction and a wardrobe that would give Gok Wan a seizure, Falcioni made for a perfect pantomime villain.  His disregard for flair and panache would remain a recurrent criticism aimed at him throughout his time at Boca. To his credit he did show brief moments of levity, such as when he appeared alongside his mumbling doppelganger (impersonator Freddy Villareal) on hit TV programme Showmatch.

The complaint of a Bilardo-esque preference of results over style seems perhaps a strange stick to beat Falcioni with, given Boca’s traditional image.  Over the years Boca have forged a reputation – romantically emanating from the working class origins of the club – as a side of brawlers, full of guts, determination and importantly ‘huevos’ (balls in this context) who will fight to the bitter end.  Though Boca has extended far beyond its humble beginnings and now enjoys cross-class support across the whole of Argentina, this identity still has a certain resonance and was perfectly typified in this year’s Superclasico when, having been second best to River throughout, Walter Erviti salvaged a 2-2 draw with an injury time equaliser.

Having ended their silverware drought with the Apertura crown, the Libertadores became the number one target.  Things began inauspiciously with a draw away to Venezuelan minnows Zamora and a loss to Fluminense but Boca rallied to make it through the knock out stages.  Inspired by mercurial playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, they saw off Union Espanola, Fluminense (again), and Universidad de Chile to set up a final against the equally solid and unspectacular Corinthians. Up to the last day they were challenging for a treble but eventually had to settle for just the Copa Argentina as Corinthians picked up a first Libertadores title and Arsenal pipped them to the Clausura. An impressive campaign but ultimately a case of so close yet so far.

shroud remains over Riquelme's future

The defeat in the Libertadores final represented a double loss for Boca as, minutes after the final whistle, Riquelme made the announcement that he would no longer play for the club.  Falcioni and Riquelme had endured a troubled relationship ever since his arrival at the club after, four games into his reign, Falcioni sensationally dropped Riquelme for a game against All Boys; a ballsy gesture that he wouldn’t bow to individual egos.  A huge bust up between the pair after the Zamora game made the damage irrevocable as Riquelme frequently complained about the negative tactics employed by Falcioni.  This feud was a massive obstacle for Falcioni and proved key as to why he was never accepted by the majority of the fans.  At the end of the day the public would always side with their talisman.

The latest season was again largely uninspiring without Riquelme’s invention but did eventually see young promises such as Juan Sanchez Miño, Leandro Paredes and Guillermo ‘Pol’ Fernandez emerge, giving Boca a much needed youthful exuberance.  A good finish to the season ensured a sixth place finish and clinched a place in next year’s Libertadores but, amid more critical words from Riquelme, it was not enough to save Falcioni and president Daniel Angelici decided it was a convenient juncture to part ways.

With legendary Larry David lookalike Carlos Bianchi back at the helm, the positive feeling is flooding back to Boca. The most successful manager in the club’s history, El Virrey won three Libertadores titles between 2000 and 2003. His arrival will no doubt appease the fans and also marks the renewal of a fascinating rivalry with new River boss Ramon Diaz.  The question on everyone’s lips is whether he can tempt Riquelme back. He will certainly try to coax him back and it wouldn’t be the first time Riquelme has gone back on a retirement decision but his frosty relationship Angelici could be an insurmountable stumbling block. 

Falcioni won’t be remembered fondly but he deserves more credit than will probably be afforded to him.  He transformed a floundering Boca into an effective and successful unit despite considerable pressure from all angles and though his tactics, much like his own appearance, weren’t easy on the eye, he managed to restore the club back to the top of the domestic game after years in the wilderness.  Bianchi, despite his vastly superior popularity, might have a tough act to follow.